Walden Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-18

Chapter Sixteen "The Pond in Winter"


One morning, Thoreau wakes up feeling as if he'd been trying to answer some question in his sleep, but when he looked out at nature, who "puts no questions and answers none which we mortals ask," he felt content. He went out in search of water, taking an axe to cut a hole in the foot of snow and foot and a half of ice over the pond. The pond, like the marmots in the hills, hibernates for three months. Looking down into the serene water, he realizes that "heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."

Early in the morning, men come with lunches packed to ice fish. These men, who don't follow the authority of books or townsmen, are themselves a subject for the naturalist. With grub worms cut out of logs, they catch perch to use for bait to catch pickerel, and they know nature better than any naturalist. Thoreau admires how one fisherman ties his line around a stick so it won't fall through the ice and leaves it slack, tied to a leaf, so he can see when he has a bite, when the leaf is pulled in. When Thoreau sees the pickerel of Walden, their rare colors like pearls, he sees them as "small Waldens of the animal kingdom" which are never sold in any market.

"Desirous to recover the long-lost bottom of Walden Pond," Thoreau sets out to disprove the many stories about Walden being bottomless, which he has also heard about other nearby ponds. In the winter of 1846, using a cod-line tied to a stone through a hole in the ice, Thoreau finds it to be 102 feet at the deepest (107 when he writes, the water having risen 5 feet) ­ a remarkable but not unbelievable depth for so small an area. A factory owner told Thoreau that would make the sides too steep, but Thoreau thinks that if Walden were drained it would appear similar to many meadows. He supposes the depth of the ocean, when discovered, will not seem very great compared to its size.

By measuring in a variety of spots, Thoreau finds that the bottom is relatively flat, varying by only three or four inches, and follows the contours of the shore. The greatest depth occurs where the diameter of the greatest length and width of the pond intersect. Thoreau attempts to see if this is a general rule by testing it on White Pond and is only slightly off. If we knew all the laws of nature, we would only need to know one fact and could infer the rest, but we do not comprehend the world in its entirety. The law of averages holds true for the pond but for ethics as well. We can infer the "depth and concealed bottom" of a man through his surrounding features. Just as bars separate harbors from the sea, we become trapped by bars as well.

Thoreau has not discovered any outlets or inlets of Walden, which gets its water from rain, snow, and evaporation, but supposes the place where the water is warmest in the winter and coldest in the summer is where the spring which feeds it is located. Some ice-men at the pond rejected some thinner cakes of ice from one spot in the pond, where the water must have been warmer, and also show Thoreau a "Œleach hole'" where the water may leak out into a nearby meadow. The ice undulates under the wind, as Thoreau has detected with a level. He supposes with sensitive enough instruments we could detect the undulation of the earth. When he cut holes in the ice, water ran into them, cutting rivulets into the ice, which freeze in icy rosettes.

In January, the "prudent landlord" cuts ice to prepare for cold drinks in July but makes no such preparations for heaven. In the winter of 1846-47, a hundred Irishmen come from Cambridge to cut ice for a rich man, who already has half-a-million dollars, getting a thousand tons on a good day. They pile ten thousand tons of the ice in a pile thirty five feet high, covering it in straw, so that it looks like "a vast blue fort of Valhalla," and estimate only twenty-five percent will make it in good condition to its destination. For some reason, perhaps because the ice contains more air than expected the majority of it is left behind, uncovered the following July and taking over a year to melt.

Walden ice seen up close has a green tint but from a distance looks blue. Water that looks green often freezes to look blue from the same perspective, perhaps because of the quantity of air contained in it. Told by the men that some five-year-old ice in the Fresh Pond ice-houses is good as ever, Thoreau wonders why ice remains sweet when water will go putrid soon, and compares it to the difference between the intellect and affections. For sixteen days, he watches the men working, as if farming, but in thirty days, he will look at the same green Walden as always. It pleases Thoreau that the "sweltering inhabitants of Charlestown and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at [his] well," thus connecting Thoreau with the servants of Brahmin and mingling Walden water with "the sacred water of the Ganges."


With the opening paragraph of this chapter, it is apparent that Thoreau's depression and lethargy has ended. He represents this psychological struggle through the metaphor of sleep. He has been asking questions in his sleep ­ looking only inward ­ and only when he looks outward, at nature, does he cease questioning. He takes nature's example, asking and answering no questions but living serenely. In describing this realization as occurring when he awakens in the morning, Thoreau draws upon the metaphor of awakening to describe his increased spiritual awareness.

The pond has long been a symbol for Thoreau's self, reflecting him in its depths. Now, as he awakens, shaking off the sleep which encased and surrounded him, he represents this process in the act of cutting into the ice which surrounds the pond. He compares the pond the hibernating marmot; it too "closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months." However, rather than accept this delaying of life, Thoreau struggles against it, metaphorically opening the pond's eyes ­ his own perceptions ­ by cutting into the ice.

Therefore, Thoreau's attempts to study and understand the pond in a way no other townsmen have done before him, represents his ability to look into himself by simultaneously looking into nature. His findings about the pond's depth would surprise and contradict the assumptions of most people, just as his realizations in living at Walden about his own life run counter to common beliefs. The unexplored depths of the pond are also the unexplored depths of his own life that Thoreau went to Walden to study.

The ice fishers, who instinctively know nature and who themselves could be a subject of study for naturalists, demonstrate the melding of society and nature for which Thoreau had been struggling. His favorable opinion towards them and description of them as a part of nature demonstrate his newly found optimism.

In contrast, the ice men, who Thoreau describes as taking the "skin" off of the lake, are a part of culture on which he does not look fondly. Their actions are accomplished only for monetary gain, to fill the pockets of an already-rich man. In describing their effects upon the pond as he does, in the metaphor of skinning the pond as if it were a living creature, Thoreau demonstrates the violent conflict which inevitably arises between economic gain and natural life.

Ultimately, Thoreau's outlook becomes yet again naturalistic. Nature seems to have the capacity to resist the encroaches of society. The ice blocks are left behind, melting back into Walden. Even before that happens, Thoreau is content knowing that the spring will come and with it unchanging appearance of his beloved pond.

Chapter Seventeen "Spring"


Usually, open tracks of water caused by the ice-cutters caused the ice to break up early but that year, Walden completely froze over again. Walden opens very regularly every year, about the first of April, about a week later than Flint's Pond or Fair-Haven, which are shallower. In the summer, the sun warms the shallowest water the most during the day and cools it the most at night. In this sense, the day replicates the year on a smaller scale. In the spring, the sun reflects from the bottom of shallow water, which had been the first to freeze in the fall, warming the ice from both sides, creating a honeycomb effect, in which air bubbles help to melt the ice. On February 24, 1850, Thoreau struck his axe on Flint's Pond and heard it respond like a gong. All day long, except at noon, it began to boom, being sensitive to atmospheric change.

"One attraction," Thoreau writes, "in coming to the woods to live was that I should have the leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in." He feels the ice melting and listens for birds, and by March 13, when he has heard a bluebird, song-sparrow, and red-wing, the ice was a foot thick. The edges and middle began melting, and in 1845, it completely opened up on April 1, and in '46, on March 25, and within a two week span in the following years. Living in a climate of extremes makes this process of ice breaking up especially interesting. One old man who thought he knew nature well rowed his boat down the river from Sudbury to Fair-Haven Pond, which he found frozen. He waited with his gun for ducks to alight in hole in the ice, then heard a loud rumbling he took for fowl but found that the ice had shifted against the bank, breaking off in huge pieces.

Little delights Thoreau more than watching rivulets of sand and clay break through the snow in banks, such as those at the side of the railroad, looking like "grotesque vegetation" in numerous colors. This "sand foliage" makes him feel as if he "stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me," and he sees this formation replicated in tree leaves, in blood vessels, and in ice crystals. He compares man to a "mass of thawing clay," with fingers and toes leaves and the ear as a lichen. As such, one "hill side illustrate[s] the principle of all the operations of Nature." The earth is a living thing and all animals and plants on it "merely parasitic." Nothing excites Thoreau like the "forms which this molten earth flows into."

When the ground is only partially bare of snow, Thoreau sees wildflowers, grasses, cattails, and other weeds which survived the winter, which feed the early birds. The red squirrels move under Thoreau's house and make noise chirping away, even when he stamps on the floor. He is ecstatic seeing the first sparrow of spring and hear its and other birds' songs again. Walden continues melting, opening up "canals" on the north, west, and east sides. A piece of ice has broken off and a song-sparrow sings to aid its breaking. A ribbon of water sparkles in the sun. In all of this, Thoreau sees "the contrast between winter and spring"; "Walden was dead and is alive again." The change seems instantaneous, filling Thoreau's house with light, and he hears a robin sing as if he has not for a thousand years.

Honking geese and ducks fly over head on their way north, with stragglers following days later, and pigeons fly in small flocks in April. To Thoreau "the coming in of spring is like the creation of Cosmos out of Chaos and the realization of the Golden Age." The grass is greener from a single rain and men's sins are all forgiven in a spring morning, though jailers, judges, and preachers seem not to hear God's hint and the pardon he offers freely.

On April 29, while fishing in the river, Thoreau hears a rattling and looks up to see a hawk soaring overhead, looking like it had never set foot on land and must have its nest in the clouds. He catches sliver and gold fishes which are like jewels. He has jumped through meadows in mornings in such pure and bright light as wood wake the dead. All of this is proof enough of immortality for Thoreau. Unexplored nature is necessary as a tonic to village life, leaving something unfathomable, witnessing limits transgressed. Seeing a vulture devour carrion reminds us of our health and strength. Thoreau used to pass by a road where a dead horse lay to remind himself that nature is so rife with life that it can afford to sacrifice myriads.

Early in May, the budding trees impart a brightness to the landscape. On May 3 or 4, he sees a loon in the pond; in the first week of May, hears the whippoorwill, brown thrasher, veery, wood-pewee, chewink, and other birds. The phoebe had already looked in his house, and soon the yellow pollen of the pitch-pine covers the pond and shore. The seasons go rolling into summer. "Thus," Thoreau concludes, "was my first year's life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6, 1847."


The overriding theme of this chapter is rebirth. "Walden was dead and is alive again," Thoreau writes. Here, spring ­ the time during which the book began ­ has come once more, and the cycle of another year has been completed. Thoreau's coalescing of two years' experience into one, which he notes once more at the end of the chapter, emphasizes this unending cycle. The rebirth of the pond symbolizes the rebirth of Thoreau's spirit. With the emergence of spring, he too is reborn ­ and his exultation in describing nature illustrates his positive perspective.

Throughout this chapter, Thoreau draws upon and reshapes Christian mythology to create and express his own understanding of the divine. "Walden was dead and is alive again" echoes Luke 15:24, "For this my son was dead, and is alive again." In Thoreau's reframing of the resurrection motif, nature ­ rather than Jesus alone ­ has the capacity to be man's spiritual savior.

Similarly, Thoreau's resounding, "O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?" is taken from I Corinthians 15:55. In the theology of St. Paul, Christ's redemptive power undoes the finality of death through the promise of life everlasting. For Thoreau, the beauty and power of nature convince him of the immortality of man. The earth itself is living and immortal, and the coming of the spring emphasizes to him a sort of everlasting life. Such a realization is especially relevant given the recent death of Thoreau's brother, which effected him profoundly. The quote itself was part of the funeral service. His ability and desire to encounter death ­ as represented by the dead horse he repeatedly passes on the road ­ shows his acceptance of death's inevitability and demonstrates he has found an understanding of life's continuity.

In this chapter, Thoreau refers to God as "the Artist who made the world and me," a Transcendalist understanding of the divine drawn from Emerson, who drew a connection between art and divinity. Thoreau also calls mankind "a mass of thawing clay," echoing the molding of Adam from clay in Genesis and "clay in the potter's hand" in Jeremiah. In linking God to artistry, Thoreau simultaneously exults his own work of creation as a poet.

The description of "sand foliage" is one of Thoreau's most original contributions and one of the most critically praised passages in the book. It is an organic creation of Thoreau's imagination, and its linkage of diverse products of nature (plants, humans, ice, sand) through their shared form illustrates his sentiments regarding the organic linkage between artistry and nature.

Thoreau returns to his motif of the microcosm in his description of the day as a lesser version of the year ­ the ice melting and freezing in spring and fall, warming and cooling at morning and evening ­ displays his propensity to perceive and organize the forms of nature. Living in a time of great social and religious change, Thoreau seeks to find comfort in the predictable form and repetition of nature ­ hence his lists of dates, as with the freezing and melting dates of the lake, for series of years.

This chapter is the climax of the book. Thoreau and spring awaken at Walden and come to an understanding of the divine, immortality, and man's place in nature. However, Thoreau's decision to ultimately leave Walden suggests two opposing possibilities ­ that either his experiment at Walden is ultimately found lacking or that it is so successful that he no longer needs to live in the woods to live deliberately.

Chapter Eighteen "Conclusion"


Doctors wisely recommend a change of scenery to the sick. New England isn't "all the world." Migrating geese and grazing bison travel farther than us. "The universe is wider than our views of it." But in our voyage through life, we should look at what is going on around us. People who travel to Africa to hunt giraffes are really looking for something inside themselves. Be an explorer of the worlds which exist in yourself through thought. Some people are patriotic without having self-respect, loving the soil but not their own spirit. It is easier to sail thousands of miles than to "explore the private sea." But explore the world until you can find a way inward to explore yourself.

Mirabeau, who said he took to highway robbery to achieve honor by opposing society's most sacred laws, was desperate. A saner man would oppose society's most sacred laws through obedience to even more sacred laws. A man should obey the laws of his being and in doing so will never find himself in opposition to a just government if such a thing exists.

Thoreau "left the woods for as good a reason as [he] went there." It is easy to fall into a routine, and having within a week of his life at Walden beaten a path between his door and the lake, he decided he had more lives to live and no more time for that particular one. Through his experiment, he learned that if a man confidently follows his dreams, he will find unexpected success and discover new laws. As he simplifies his life, universal laws will become less complex. Build castles in the air and then put foundations under them.

The demand that one speak so that he can be understood is ridiculous, for nature supports a multiple order of understandings. He fears he does not speak extravagantly enough and wants to "speak somewhere without bounds." The truth of our words, which is instantly translated, betrays the inadequacy of our statements. Common sense, which society praises, is the dullest sense, of sleeping men. Those who are "once-and-a-half-witted" are classified with half-wits because society can only recognize a third of their wit. Hindu philosophy expresses four different senses, but here people complain if writing has more than one interpretation. The English work to cure potato-rot but none work to cure brain-rot.

Thoreau would be proud if no more fault was found with his writing than is found with Walden ice, which Southerners object to because of its blue color, which is in fact evidence of its purity. To those who say that Americans are intellectual dwarfs compared to the ancients or even the Elizabethans, he says, "Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can be?" If a man lives his life differently than others, maybe he hears a different drummer; he should follow the music he hears. Our conceptions of reality are limiting and artificial.

An artist in Kouroo, striving after perfection, knew that in perfect work time does not enter. He worked intently, never aging, as he chose the perfect stick and peeled it into the perfect staff, as generations died, cities fell, and dynasties ended. He made a new system, a "world with full and fair proportions," and realized that "the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain." Nothing lasts as long as the truth; "any truth is better than make-believe." A tinker whose last words on the gallows were to remind the tailors to tie a knot in the thread before taking the first stitch are remembered.

Love your life and live it no matter how poor it is. A quiet mind can live contently in an almshouse better than a palace. The town's poor seem to lead the most independent lives. Don't bother getting new clothes or friends, for God will provide society. If he were to live the rest of his life in a garret, Thoreau would still have his thoughts and the world would be just as large to him. If you can't afford to buy books and newspapers, then you are compelled to seek the most vital experiences, to live "life near the bone where it is sweetestŠMoney is not required to buy one necessary of the soul."

Thoreau lives next to a leaden wall, poured from bell metal, which rings at midday when his contemporaries talk about famous people they have met, but none of this talk about costumes or manners interests Thoreau, anymore than does the content of the newspapers. Rather than play about at the surface of society without discovering the true foundation, Thoreau would prefer to do a work he can think about with satisfaction, a part of the universe. More than love, money, or fame, he wants truth. At a rich meal, he went away hungry for a lack of truth. He would have preferred to call upon a man he knew who lived in a tree than a king who made him wait in the hall.

People waste their time practicing virtues which real work would make irrelevant. Mankind is complacent, congratulating itself for its philosophy when none of Thoreau's readers has lived a full human life. Asleep half the time, we don't even know where we are but tell ourselves we are deep thinkers. Watching an insect on the forest floor, as it tries to hide from him, not knowing he might be its benefactor, he is reminded of "the greater Benefactor and Intelligence" looking over the race of human insects. We are content with the dull and ordinary, while the sermons of other countries speak of sorrow and joy.

Thoreau compares life to water in the river, capable of rising higher than it ever has this year. Everyone in New England has heard the story of a bug which emerged from a sixty-year old wood table. This strengthens Thoreau's faith in resurrection and his belief that from under the many dead layers of society, something unexpected may finally emerge. While all men may not realize this, that is the way things are. The only dawn is the one we are awake to witness.


In Thoreau's conclusion to his experience at Walden Pond, a great deal of contrast to "Economy," the first chapter and introduction, is evident. Whereas "Economy" was a relatively straightforward, factual account of Thoreau's decision to build a cabin and live at Walden Pond ­ complete with dates and figures detailing his costs for building materials ­ "Conclusion" is almost entirely composed of metaphor. Both are directed at an audience, seemingly composed primarily of New England readers, but whereas "Economy" offered a blueprint and inspirational message for living one's life outside the confines of society, "Conclusion" offers a less optimistic, more spiritual view. Here, Thoreau urges his readers to withdraw from society and turn inward. In proposing such a radical alternative to traditional life, Thoreau is comparatively less certain his example will be followed.

For a good part of this chapter, Thoreau employs the extended metaphor of sailing and exploration as a means of comparing the artificial, unthinking life in the material world with the true, introspective life he urges. Nineteenth-century adventurers concern themselves with sailing to exotic places like Africa or recounting trips to India, England, or even just New York, when a more extreme "change of scenery" is needed to cure the human ills. Thus Thoreau counters this colonialist impulse to travel and possess ­ as through giraffe hunting ­ another culture physically with an extended description of the "voyage" into one's own self, which can be far more difficult and more rewarding. In linking the inward journey with the ultimate discovery of universal truths, Thoreau offers his own take on the Transcendentalist philosophy, in which man has the capacity to discover the divine within himself.

Nonetheless, an exultant tone pervades much of this chapter. Perhaps because his task has become comparatively difficult, Thoreau is more passionate in his appeals to his readers ­ offering them far more than an alternative scenery but an alternate way of understanding their lives. Whereas in "Economy," he appealed to the well-to-do to recognize the way their possessions trap them and free themselves from such a burden, here he appeals to the poor, offering them a means of seeing their life as in fact elevated and more rewarding than their wealthy contemporaries. By substituting a system of spiritual meaning and fulfillment for the capitalist system, Thoreau offers an alternate means of evaluating life's worth.

With the metaphor of the drummer ­ the nonconformist who marches to the beat of a different drum ­ Thoreau explores and defends his own choices in life from the conformist attitudes of society. In some ways, his defense of the nonconformist, who must be free to explore his own truths, and the "once-and-a-half-wit" whose insights society fails to recognize are defenses of his own writing. "Conclusion" was not included in the first draft of Walden; when Thoreau included it in the published version, he had already seen the failure of A Week of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and had experienced the decrease in calls for him to lecture. His commentary in "Conclusion," therefore, in part is a challenge issued to those who might dismiss his book to open their minds and recognize his insights.

The final, oft-quoted paragraph of Walden draws profusely on Emersonian Transcendentalism, particularly on sentiments expressed in Emerson's "Experience." Whereas Emerson, however, had professed an expectation of an irrepressible Transcendalist impulse. For Thoreau, such an impulse remains slumbering now ­ perhaps to awake one day but even then not completely. "I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this," Thoreau says, uncertain his readers in the end have understood him. For him, the demand he write to be understood, with only one meaning, is impossible and unfair. In the end, Walden has become an expression of truth, accomplished more of his own need to speak it, than for its readers.